BBD Editor: Dan Hope
While the value of the running back position is on a rapid decline, it increases the likelihood that NFL teams can come away with productive running backs in the late rounds of the draft. One such running back is Wisconsin’s James White.
Despite splitting carries throughout his four-year career—and often being on the lower end of the share—White ran for 4,015 yards at Wisconsin, the fourth-most in school history. His 45 rushing touchdowns and 48 total touchdowns rank third among Badgers all-time.
White has had opportunities to shine, and he’s typically taken advantage of them. He played in 52 career games at Wisconsin, missing just one game in a four-year span. He followed up his collegiate career with a strong performance at this year’s Senior Bowl, which included being named the Most Outstanding Player of the North squad in this year’s game.
In an interview with Buffalo Bills Draft in March, White said he thinks he is “one of the best running backs in this draft.”
“I feel like my versatility makes me one of the better running backs,” White said. “I feel like I’m a guy that can do it all. Block, catch the ball out of the backfield, run inside, run outside. Just really try to pride myself on doing all those things, getting the ball on special teams and in the return game, just doing whatever it takes to help my team win.”
A key contributor for one of college football’s most consistently successful teams over the past four years, White has certainly shown that he can help a team win in a variety of ways. NFL teams considering drafting him, however, must determine whether that skill set will translate to similar success at the next level.
Tale of the Tape
Weight: 204 lbs
40-Yard Dash: 4.57 seconds
Bench Press: 23 reps
*All measurables courtesy of NFL.com.
+ Consistently falls forward
+ Accelerates rapidly in open space
+ Uses vision, quickness well to bounce between running lanes in the open field
+ Effectively finds cutback lanes between the tackles
+ Typically sure-handed as a receiver
+ Carries ball tightly, not prone to fumbles
+ Productive four-year career despite never being a feature back
- Frequently overwhelmed as a pass blocker
- Doesn’t power through defenders
- Subpar speed for a smaller back
- Needs blocks in front of him to be effective
The more open space he has to work with, the more effective White is as a runner. He consistently uses his vision well to find openings, while he has the shiftiness to make defenders miss with his cuts and to weave between running lanes and angle himself away from defenders.
White took advantage of his open-field skills to come up with many big plays in his Wisconsin career, such as when he made four defenders miss on the following 25-yard run versus Brigham Young this past season.
As White showed by making at least four defenders miss in the above Draft Analysis video clip, he is good at carving a path to get to his destination.
The downside to White, however, is his need for open space to carve that path. As he is an undersized back who lacks power, it’s rare to see White drive his way through defenders and force his way through tight holes. He is often able to overcome that by using his vision to find the lanes that are present, but he could struggle when the lanes become smaller against NFL defenses.
Another question with White as he projects to the NFL is whether his speed will translate. At Wisconsin, he showed that he could run away from defenses in the open field, such as he did on a 93-yard touchdown run versus Indiana this past season. His 4.57-second 40, however, suggests his speed won’t be as much of a weapon as he makes the leap from the Big Ten to professional football.
Nonetheless, BBD assistant editor Joe Marino believes White “has shown the most big-play potential of any senior running back.” In his positional breakdown for this year’s running back draft class, Marino graded White as a fourth-round pick and ranked him as the 10th-best rusher among this year’s prospects.
A typically sure-handed pass-catcher, White’s ability to extend plays in the open field could make him a valuable asset as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught 73 passes over the course of his Wisconsin career, including 39 catches for 300 yards in his senior season alone.
To be utilized consistently in passing situations, White needs to become a stronger pass blocker. He often looks lost when trying to find a block in the backfield, and can also be powered back even when he engages bigger defenders. He can make up for some of his blocking shortcomings by exhibiting impressive on-field awareness, seeming to know when he should split away from a block and get open for a receiving opportunity.
What Can White Be as an NFL Running Back?
All in all, White should be a solid Day 3 draft selection. He doesn’t have any spectacular physical traits, but he has a history of productivity, reliability and making plays with the ball in his hands.
It’s his well-roundedness, as White said during his interview with BBD, that should move him ahead of some of the other running backs on the fringe of being selected. He has experience playing on special teams, and said he thinks he could even line up situationally as a slot receiver.
“You just have to learn the playbook,” White said. “I feel like I do pretty well in taking in large amounts of information and memorizing it, so you have to learn the playbook and then the team has to give you an opportunity.
White, who told BBD in March that he had a private workout scheduled with the Miami Dolphins, has also reportedly worked out for the New England Patriots, Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns, according to Aaron Wilson of National Football Post.
The Wisconsin tailback knows that his draft stock might be lower than it would have been in previous years because of the declining value of his position. Nonetheless, he said he doesn’t let that worry him.
“I think an NFL running back still is important, teams just feel that they can get a good running back in any round,” White said. “Take that with a grain of salt, it’s the position that I chose to play and you go out there and show them what you have and show them that they should draft you as high as possible.”
Having played in the Big Ten, White said he thinks his collegiate competition prepared him well for the next level. He said he has also turned to two second-round selections from last year’s draft, Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard and his former Wisconsin teammate and Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball, for advice throughout the draft process.
Getting drafted, White said, would be “a dream come true.”
“If I happen to hear my name called, that would be one of the best feelings that I’ve ever had in my life,” White said. “Something that I’ve been working for all my life … This is the game that I love so just to hear my name called, that would be a blessing.”